Median Heraldic Emblem and Flag Motif

Discovery: This artifact was found via illegal digging in what is routinely described as "northwest Persia," and offered for purchase by an unidentified seller to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1953-54. That is all that is known of its provenance.

The dig's location, however, must have been at or near Hamadan. There are a number of compelling reasons to believe so. The style matches other similar items found in excavations in Hamadan--before or after. 

Had this item been dug up far away from Hamadan--a center for licit and illicit trade in archaeological artifacts--it would have been doubtlessly melted down and turned into modern jewelry for sale. The item is quite large and heavy, and makes for a good "melt item" if it could not be sold to those Hamadani art merchants for its higher artistic/historic value. In fact, the said merchants themselves would organize bands of illegal diggers to poke around for such things that could be sold to Western buyers of all types.



Artistic style: 

The period items recovered from Hamadam uniformly host this same elements of motif that is often, and carelessly described as "Achaemenian.”  If anything, it is the Achaemenians who inherited their style ( and much of their genes) from their Median forebears (among others) not the reverse. 

Fig. 1 (Source: Plaque with horned lion-griffins, the Metropolitan Museum)

The artistic style, motif and workmanship are clearly Median due to following reasons:

1. Two animals facing each other to form a votive is a common occurrence in the “Luristan Bronzes”—a vast hoard of bronze objects from the late Iron Age that have been found in Hamadan, Kirmanshah, Ilam and Luristan provinces of Iran, all in the general environ of Media’s heartland at Mây Dasht and Hamadan. However, to the licit and illicit art markets of the West where these looted pieces were brought for sale, the are collectively known and the Luristan Bronzes. The dates ascertained for these bronzes (1000 to 650 BC) comfortably overlapping and coinciding with the history of the Median dynasty rule (750-540 BC) Examples are too numerous to need listing, but a few pieces that served as standard/flag pole terminals should suffice (figs 2-4).

Fig 2   Fig 3     Fig 4

The Median gold object under study here is naturally more elaborate and of precious metal (gold) as it is made for the high official use, compared to the Scythian tribal chief and warrior for whose flags and standards these bronzes were fashioned. But the motif is basically identical: two animals, their bodies facing each other (goats, eagle headed lions, lions, etc). (Figs 5-9)

Fig 6  Fig 7 Fig 8  Fig 9 Fig 1

2. Type of horns worn by the lions. The curling horns are those of mountain goats of the Zagors region, not those of  the (smooth surfaced) bulls used commonly by the Zoroastrian Persians who held cows/bulls in place of reverence. Again, the Luristan bronzes corroborate this stylish fact. Indeed even human motifs, when adorned with horns in the ‘Luristan’ repertoire, the horn are those of mountain goats. (figs. 10-11)

Fig 10 Fig 11

3. The heavy weight of the peace preclude it from being worn as ornament anywhere on the body by a person. Way too heavy and large. It is a heraldic motif sewn into a leather flag by the late Medians. This would be in full conformity with the wealth of flag standards and heraldic emblems found among the surviving Luristan bronzes, some which depicted above. 

Votive elements of the emblem: 

The emblem contains five disks. They could variable represent the five kings of Median dynasty—placing the date for the emblem in the reign of the last Media king, Astyages (r. 585-550BC). Or alternatively, they represent the unity of the five tribes of Medes (excluding the Zigs of Atropatene, the forebears of modern Chigini Kurds) as listed later on (and inaccurately) by Herodotus. This latter would place the disk’s origin in the reign of Cyaxares (see below).

The two animals standing on their hind legs are of course a local stylistic tradition seen already on so many ancient bronzes from the region. It could be further interpreted, if need be, as commemorating several seminal events in the history of the rise of the Median state, e.g., the unification under king Cyaxares (625-585BcC) of the two Medias: the Magna Media (the mountainous Zagros area to Isfahan) with Media Atropatene (the plains to the northeast). In such case then, the disks would represent the five tribes of Media shorn of the Zig.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, this item is a Median emblem, originally installed on a supporting medium for display. It is far too heavy and oversized (H. 13.6 cm, W. 9.8 cm/ H 5.44 inches,W3.92 inch, and weighs over half a kilogram/one pound) for any item of clothing to host it. It is a ceremonial, emblem containing commemorative/historical Median symbols of unification.

The body of the two lions face each other in conformity with the tradition seen in the earlier and contemporary bronzes. But their faces do not.  There are two uncharacteristically elements in this: the  lions are attached to each other at their chest/heart. However and uniquely, despite this emphasis on the close embrace, the face of the two lions look away from each other and into the outside horizons. Why?

To double the animal in an emblem—all body or just the head—is not uncommon in the area or beyond. The double-headed eagle motif, so closely associated with the division of the Roman empire into two—the Western and the Eastern empires—following Hadrian, is also found not uncommonly among the Sumerian artifacts, including one from Lagash, one of the oldest Sumerian cities. Strangely, a two-headed eagle cut from smoky jade by the Olmec culture of Central America may be as old (fig 12).  The ancient Hittites in Anatolia just west of the Kurdish mountains, were avid users of the doubled headed eagle as well. A 13th century BC examples from their capital at Hattusas is depicted below (fig. 13). Later the same is met in the Median and Egyptian art as well. 

Fig 12 Fig 13

In all these examples, the face of the two animals look away from each other not into each other. Seemingly doubling the head or the entire body of the animal has a religious or political significance. But so does the direction of the gaze of the creatures included in all such emblems.

In Roman history, the emblem and of the early republic was a simple sea eagle (fig. 14) . In time it became more elaborate, complete with a motto (SPQR), a laurel wreath and—a disk (fig 15) 
Fig 14   Fig 15
Fig 16   Fig 17  Fig 1

It eagle emblem of the Romans sprouted a second head and neck, becoming a double-headed eagle when the state/empire was divided by Hadrian into the western and eastern states. The eastern entity evolved to become know as the Byzantine empire, which maintained the double eagle motif until passing it on to the Eastern Orthodox church and the ruling dynasties that followed that church.  In the double eagle emblem, while the birds shared their entire bodies all the way to the base of the neck, the faces look outward and away from each other as do the lions on the Median emblem (Figs 16-17).  Can the Median emblem commemorate a unification or a division? If a unification, it would be that of the plain and mountain portions of Media, achieved under king Cyaxares the Great (better known as the conqueror of Nineveh, Assyria’s imperial capital in 605BC). 

Conversely, this can commemorate the springing of two ruling families under king Astyages, when his grandson, Cyrus the Great became the ruler of the Persians. Later, when Cyrus conquers Media and joins it to his domain in Persis to create his vast empire, the lasting entente between the Medes and the Persians is commemorated more clearly at Persepolis, the Achamenids’ ceremonial capital. There a Mede and a Persian are ubiquitously represented in carvings and bas reliefs, holding hands as if conjoined (the Medes in the Persepolitan carvings wear their usual pantaloon (as do their Kurdish descendants today) while the Persians who wear their long robes.  (Fig 18)


Fig 18 (Source: Getty Institution)

Equally interesting, is the retention of the disks that appears as a single, an unmarked simple round shape hanging above the animal’s head, into a inscribed and/or emblazoned with a sign of cross, on the body of the animal. This is what is seen on the Median emblem. The five disks are interspersed across the emblem: one jointly held by the paws of the two lions; one covering the point where the lions’ heart touch each other; two are held in the coil of the lions’ tale (one each), and the fifth is held together by the joining hands of the two lions at the highest point of the emblem, reminiscent of the joining hands of the Medes and Persians at Persepolis depicted in fig. 18. 

Clearly, the disk has a political or religious value to it. In case of the Roman one, it may depict the sun or heavens, which later on is confirmed by carrying the sign of cross and other Christian signs (compare the figures 16 to 17 above).  In case of the Medians, the meanings is political/historical, as have been already hypothesized above. 

Question of Authenticity:

When faced with a valuable art object, it is always legitimate to ask if it can be a fake--the question that the authorities at New York Metropolitan Museum must have asked when they bought the object in the early 1950s.  The available technology today allows even for national and global news and important photographs to be faked. So, how about this historical emblem? The authenticity of the object can be established thus:

1. In view of the analysis presented above, it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that the style and motifs are in full conformity with the long-established local artistic tradition, going all the way back to the Luristan bronze, and therefore authentic. Its excellent workmanship speaks of its importance and high production commission.  The piece is stylistically, historically and artistically authentic.

But while authentic and not a fake,  can it be a modern replica of a now hidden original?

2. It is quite unlikely this is a replica given the time of its discovery. Why spend so much on the heavy gold to make a replica, while the Metropolitan Museum in NY pays good money for the original object if authenticated?  Before buying it directly or indirectly from the illicit art dealers of Hamadan, the Museum obviously had the piece thoroughly examined by its experts at their laboratories for its originality.  But, even if this were a replica, it would make almost no difference to its importance to the Kurdish artistic tradition. It is the design, the motif and the historical/political message that it imparts that are important not weather this is the original or a copy.  Most archaeological sites and badly damaged works of art are routinely restored to recreate their original state of appearance for study and public viewing. In many respect they too become a replica through excessive restoration. But do they lose their artistic or national value? No. Let us not forget that much of the world-famous archaeological remains of the palaces at Knossos in Crete and the historical monuments in Athens are primarily replicas, but still retain their value to the national pride of the Greeks.

3. In case of this Median object, what would be the logic or reason to create and sell a replica to the scrutinizing, scientifically well equipped and staffed the Metropolitan Museum? The emblem is not an international treasure like a Vermeer painting to occasion illicit replicas. It is of historical value only to the Kurds, and then only recently after I identified the item and encouraged Kurdish institutions to adopt it as their own emblem. 

4. Any legitimate challenge to the authenticity of this object--its origin and its historic worth--must rationally refute and disestablish the three elements of authenticity stated above, and in a standard scientific and artistic manner. Then it must also provide results of an onsite reexamining of the Metropolitan Museum object in order to prove that this single item among millions that the world famous Museum carries in their vast collection is a replica. The endeavor should also evidence that the Museum's regiment of scholars, art historians and laboratory technicians have all been wrong since 1953 when they acquired, identified and authenticated the object.


This item which was discovered in Hamadan, the capital of the ancient Medians, and currently held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is late Median in style and execution. I has been authenticated by the Museum experts since its acquisition in 1953.  It is a heraldic emblem made to be sewn/affixed onto another medium, most likely leather, to form a flag—functional or ceremonial. It is not a Persian Achaemenian item, despite the latter adopting much of the Median artistic styles and culture (as well as the decentralized form of statecraft) into their own. 


By: M. R. Izady, 1995, expanded 2016

Prof M.R. Izady, The First International Conference on Kurdish History, Berlin: Kurdish Institute of Berlin, 1995